Can you hear me? Taking mediation online: reflections from practice
In mediation, where trust-building and confidentiality are vital, the current shift towards virtual and online interactions brings a set of new challenges for practitioners. The authors summarise early takeaways from online engagements with and between civil actors in the context of mediation projects, focusing on the opportunities and challenges that virtual tools and online engagements bring to process design and implementation. In online settings the convener should use several tools from the IT tool box in tandem, carefully selecting them to match the objective of the engagement with the overall context. Process design has to ensure that all the requirements of virtual interaction, including a code of conduct and rules of procedure, are met in order to achieve the desired result. The brief discusses this in detail, including the selection of appropriate IT applications and dealing with participants’ computer literacy and internet access challenges. In particular, it emphasises how active steps should be taken to foster the inclusion of traditionally marginalised groups, including women.*
* In this brief, to ensure consistency the authors will use the term “convener” to refer to either a mediator supported by a mediation support actor or a third-party facilitator (e.g. NOREF) facilitating dialogue in Track II initiatives. The term “participants” is used to describe any invitee to an online engagement. This may include civil society, Track II or political actors, depending on the context.
In mediation, where trust-building and confidentiality are vital, the current shift towards virtual and online interactions brings a set of new challenges for practitioners, knowing that not all conflict resolution practitioners master the IT language, codes and technology. Which tools and application programs should be used? How can they be used in and applied to a specific context? What needs should be catered for and selection criteria considered when selecting the best online application(s) to use for a particular purpose? What are the security risks of online mediation dialogue, particularly in terms of the need for confidentiality? How should these risks be understood and can they be mitigated?
This brief summarises some early takeaways from online engagements with civil actors in the context of a formal Track I process and mediation projects. These engagements involved direct interactions between either a mediator or a third-party facilitator and civil society actors or conflict parties, as well as dialogue among civil society actors at the Track II level without facilitation. The brief addresses what opportunities and challenges virtual applications and online engagements bring to process design and implementation. In online settings, the convener should use several tools from the IT tool box in tandem to match the main objective of the engagement with the overall context. These can be a variety of meeting formats, video and audio tools, and facilitation styles, while taking into consideration potential risk-mitigating measures. Furthermore, as part of process design, active steps can be taken to foster the inclusion of traditionally marginalised groups, including women.
2. Process design revisited
Anyone who has participated in a virtual meeting has experienced how the lack of body language and non-verbal cues, and the absence of muted laughter and informal chatter affect the tone and quality of the interaction. Virtual meetings are generally demanding, as is mediation work in general.
Selecting the appropriate IT tools and paying careful attention to the setup, sequencing and choreography of the meeting are key to its success.
Mediation participants are invariably in some form of direct or indirect conflict with each other; indeed, why else is mediation needed to begin with? This is the essential reality of mediation work and the primary point of departure of our efforts. Rethinking the process design to account for the new reality – i.e. the remote nature of the meeting – is therefore essential. Selecting the appropriate IT tools and paying careful attention to the setup, sequencing and choreography of the meeting are key to its success. The format of the engagement needs to be consciously fitted to its objectives, audience and related sensitivities. Equally, the objectives of the meeting/engagement should be made clear from the onset.
Substantive and technical aspects
Contrary to in-person meetings, online meetings require less logistical support and no travel arrangements. However, to convene a successful online mediation engagement one should invest just as much time and effort in preparations that cover the substantive issues, the technical matters and the necessary building of trust among the participants. While in-person encounters allow the parties/participants time to narrow down the agenda or reflect on it, time in online engagements is limited and fatigue and distraction are more likely to interrupt the meeting. The good news is that well-executed preparations go hand in hand with local ownership. Consequently, taking the time to agree with the parties/participants on a detailed agenda before the intended online meeting and ensuring enough time for internal deliberations within each party or group will lead to the meeting proceeding smoothly and will foster a sense of local ownership. This means that, when necessary, the convener should be able to offer virtual space for each party to discuss the agenda among its members before the intended meeting, especially if the members of a particular group/party cannot meet in person. In engagements with civil society actors, local organisations can play a role in coordinating internal in-person or virtual discussions for a group in order to allow them to present a collective view of the group’s agenda priorities to the convener. This also fosters local ownership.
For ideas, discussions, and arguments to run freely and opinions to be expressed honestly, participants need to feel comfortable with the space they find themselves in. Prior to online engagements conveners need to assist with this by providing training sessions where participants are familiarised with the selected IT tools. Doing so also presents a potential opportunity to build rapport among the participants well ahead of the intended online engagement. Holding such test/training sessions among interlocutors allows a space for relational and human interaction among the participants, while everyone tests their cameras and microphones, puts faces to names, and familiarises themselves with the back-end personnel who may not be visible, but will be involved in/listening in to the online engagement. To keep everyone engaged, it is advisable to reduce the time of a session and spread the engagement over several days. For example, one-day in-person meeting could be transformed to two-day online meetings with two sessions on each day. This is needed to avoid screen fatigue and distractions.
When designing online engagements, all aspects of the communication process should be considered. Experience with a remote simultaneous language interpretation tool that enables the smooth conduct of online meetings in several languages has so far been good. However, challenges remain. It is at times difficult to find interpreters who can navigate their dedicated interface of the virtual platform being used while adapting to the need to cooperate on the platform with a colleague in a remote location, and perhaps in another time zone. Contrary to in-person settings, on a virtual interpretation platform interpreters become a more integral part of the process design. Training and testing with interpreters therefore become crucial in order to create a harmonious relationship between the interpreter and the facilitators/moderators/participants, especially because the interpreters are mostly not visible onscreen during an online engagement. Yet they act as the voices of all the engaged participants and are therefore essential to the process.
Regulating the virtual space
A code of conduct and rules of procedure that form the basis of and lay down the “rules” for an online engagement are useful tools to signal the importance of achieving an organised and constructive engagement. They determine the rules of engagement for active participants and the broader ecosystem that surrounds online engagement: social media, screenshots, possible use of the Chatham House Rule, etc. Developing a code of conduct jointly with the participants could promote trust-building and foster engagement among them. On the same lines, rules of procedure should be developed to assign roles, define access, create room for manoeuvre and make sure the choreography of the engagement is followed throughout its course. In light of the various “behind-the-scenes” personnel involved in online meetings, technicians, interpreters and all externally involved personnel should sign non-disclosure agreements. In online settings, body language and language interpretation compete for participants’ attention. If the conveners are working from their homes, the display of personal items in the background can potentially cause unintended “noise”: a tableau de maître on the living room wall will be decoded differently by different participants and may draw focus away from the conversation. Conveners ought to remain neutral in all dimensions of their online appearances.
Selecting the right IT application program(s)
In processes that include online engagements, the choice of an application is an integral part of the process design. Specific applications will have many implications for the way in which the dialogue develops, the dynamics among participants, their security and their access. Rushing to use the most popular application can be a costly short cut. A needs assessment that surveys participants’ needs and the applications that they are most familiar with is necessary to select the most suitable platform. This pre-consultation is an integral part of the process design, and will help to foster local ownership of the process and facilitate the online engagements. It should be conducted at the same time as the agenda-setting process.
Participants’ level of computer literacy should be taken into consideration, but it should not be the only determining factor. Several applications may be used in combination with one another, and when all the options/features that are needed are not offered in one application, the convener may decide to use different application tools for different meetings as appropriate. For example, applications that allow for interactive conversations would be more suitable for dialogue sessions and internal discussions involving a wide range of interlocutors, while applications that allow the audio and video streams to be controlled would be more suitable for formal settings, like exchanges with high-level officials. The needs assessment will inform the convener whether to opt for an advanced online communication application or one that enables collaboration, peer-to-peer work and group participation. Once the preferred application(s) has/have been identified, the question of how to manage access should also be addressed. This would involve deciding on administrative access to the selected application(s) and the kind of access the parties should have, e.g. restricted access or 24/7 access to a virtual space for intra-party dialogue (i.e. dialogue among members of a particular group of participants).
In terms of security risks, no one can claim that virtual meetings are fully secure, because none is. However, due diligence in this regard can help to mitigate some of the risks linked to leakages, interception, sabotage or other similar issues. Therefore, a range of criteria should be incorporated into the needs assessment used for selecting the application(s) that will be used. This is perhaps the most vulnerable point of the assessment due to the peace actors’ typical lack of qualified in-house resources.
A security concern that cannot be fully mitigated is the human factor.
It is nonetheless an essential resource to have that can be procured outside the organisation in the form of an IT consultant with knowledge of encryption, transmission, servers and so forth, combined with a creative mind. Sharing lessons learned among the conflict resolution practitioners and within the mediation community can enrich the field and foster its virtual potential. A security concern that cannot be fully mitigated is the human factor. The risk of information about a dialogue leaking is not limited to virtual or remote meetings, but is also a challenge affecting in-person meetings, which makes it an inescapable risk facing the mediation process.
For mediation activities of a more sensitive nature, a whole ecosystem of communication tools can be used, bearing in mind that the infrastructure (undersea fibre-optic cables, satellites, phone relays, etc.) is vulnerable and the ownership of its various components is spread across private multinational and state-owned organisations.
Ensuring that conversations remain private will remain a challenge. Audio and video tracks do not encrypt in the same way, making audio tracks more secure than a fully fleshed video connection. It is customary to use providers that claim they can provide “end-to-end encryption” (E2EE) in both audio and video communication applications that secures the data sent between users. This functionality works well when only two participants take part in a video conversation. However, as soon as more users are added the amount of data resources required to produce the video flow is so large that most digital tools cannot sustain 100% E2EE.
One point of particular attention is the storage of personally identifiable information (PII) by communications applications and the companies that supply them, as well as its potential access by personnel of third-party companies. This can in particular compromise a meeting’s attendance list, which in some cases is far more important than the content of conversations.
Trust-building and the human touch in a virtual context
Trust-building in virtual contexts is especially challenging, particularly without the human interface, jokes, coffee-break chit chat, etc. However, some of the points mentioned above can be combined to build trust among the participants. The joint agenda-setting process and drafting of a code of conduct and rules of procedure, training sessions for all participants on using the selected application program, and the conducting of needs assessment for all participants are all steps that allow exchanges and reiterate the local ownership of the process. Trust-building with the convener, be he/she a chief mediator or a third-party facilitator, goes beyond the virtual sphere and entails every interaction and communication that occurs between the convener and the parties, including public political communication and good-offices activities.
While informal conversations during in-person meetings cannot be entirely replicated online, skilful facilitation and the use of the most appropriate application(s) might provide a space for humour and relational comments that could facilitate more effective dialogue. Some applications offer options for private conversations and/or chat windows. Our experience is that, depending on the participants, context and activities involved, humour, jokes, and anecdotes can find their way into the virtual space during or after a meeting whether in the more informal chat that takes place in the actual meeting, in private chat groups, or even through follow-up emails. Participants will spontaneously find a way to extend communication that best suits their environment and context. This process is obviously very difficult for conveners to plan for, but it should be supported when it happens. Initially selecting the most appropriate applications(s) to use could make such informal communication more likely, however.
3. The inclusion-exclusion dilemma in the virtual space
Many practitioners have noted that online engagements can be more inclusive, because they provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to participate regardless of their location, whether it is a besieged area, a refugee camp, a remote village or a city, and regardless of travel documents, authorisations or visas. Matters of health, disabilities, availability and family-related challenges are relatively less important. Online engagements can therefore provide equal visibility for all participants. The convener/meeting facilitator will nevertheless need to be very conscious of the challenges surrounding visibility and actively act to mitigate them. Responsibility for safeguarding women’s and traditionally marginalised groups’ voices falls significantly on the convener, who should as far as possible attempt to ensure equal visibility and speaking opportunities.
Participants in online consultations have remarked that they would not have had the same opportunity to make their voices heard were it not for the online meetings.
Techniques that block or suppress their voices can also be mirrored and continued in virtual meetings. However, the selection of a suitable application program and ensuring adequate online facilitation mean that marginalised groups’ and women’s voices can be safeguarded. Participants in online consultations have remarked that they would not have had the same opportunity to make their voices heard were it not for the online meetings. In several online engagements it has been observed how women from civil society have taken a proactive role in coordinating and participating in the online dialogues, coordinating follow-up conversations, drafting after-action reports and disseminating the results of the dialogues.
Since the time for interventions is limited in online engagements, interlocutors are encouraged to be more succinct and more focused on their main priorities. When everyone sits in the same room, interruptions and lengthy political statements are often unavoidable. In virtual settings facilitators/moderators have access to functionalities that help ensure adherence to the time limits previously agreed on for statements/interventions.
However, virtual engagements do not amount to automatic equality. All participants do not have the same level of access to electricity, the internet, computer literacy and the required infrastructure/equipment. Online inclusion may pose a high security concern for especially vulnerable actors. Internet connections might not be secure, and meetings could be covertly recorded and/or leaked. While it is not possible to prevent all these things from occurring, some mitigating measures can be taken, e.g. ascertaining the best time to organise online activities with regard to electricity and internet access, and investing time in finding a suitable combination of IT tools and communication media that include the ability to facilitate both outreach to individual participants and the group as a whole are essential.
Mitigating steps can be taken that promote equality in virtual mediation, including:
- holding training sessions with participants/interlocutors, the convener and the team, interpreters, etc. to level the playing field for those who typically find it difficult to access or use virtual dialogue tools;
- covering the cost of internet data bundles for participants;
- employing smart-phone-friendly tools; and
- using tools requiring less bandwidth or covering VPN costs.
These are all examples of measures that facilitators and mediators have at their disposal that can be used with care and consideration to boost the inclusivity of the conversation. Even though an online meeting cannot be 100% secure, some tools and companies offer relatively secure options (locked or password-protected meetings, two-factor authentication, unique access links, etc.).
Discussions about the online transformation of the mediation and conflict resolution fields are not new; however, the latest travel restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have given impetus to what amounts to a paradigm shift. New opportunities for creative solutions and an integrated role between the IT industry and the mediation field present themselves. The #cybermediation network is a very good example of a growing creative collaboration among peace actors.
It is inconceivable to ask those who suffer from war and conflict to wait until the end of an epidemic before mediators and peace actors resume efforts to prevent their further suffering. In light of this, the mediation system must adapt to the new challenges that have emerged as a result of the need to adapt to the restrictions resulting from the pandemic. While virtual settings obviously cannot completely replace in-person settings, practitioners should not miss the chance to harness the opportunities that IT tools bring to the cause of mediation and conflict resolution. It will take time before custom-made tools become available, but in the meantime it is crucial to take a step-by-step approach to the applications that are currently available on the market and critically assess their suitability for mediation processes, where effective connectivity and the security of participants remain key.
The paper was first published on 18 September 2020 by the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution – NOREF